Space Race 2.0: Australia joins the countries vying to conquer the universe
Australia has become the latest country to enter the space race after announcing plans to launch its own agency.
Following an independent review into the country’s space industry potential in July, led by former CSIRO chief executive Dr. Megan Clark, the country has concluded it is “crucial” Australia doesn’t get left behind. The announcement was made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.
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“The agency will be the anchor for our domestic co-ordination and the front door for our international engagement,” said acting industry minister Michaelia Cash. More details are set to be announced as the congress continues later this week.
So what on Earth (or rather, off it) is the rest of the world up to?
The Space Race: Ghana
Ghana established itself in the space race earlier this year by launching its first satellite into orbit. The GhanaSat1, a miniature type of satellite known as a cubesat, was constructed by a team of engineers at All Nations University.
A SpaceX rocket deploying GhanaSat-1 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to NASA’s International Space Station in June, and the cubesat was released into orbit in July. Full details were released in August.
Yet despite the myriad benefits for Ghana’s continued development – and a message of congratulations from the president Nana Akufo-Addo – the venture didn’t receive official Ghanaian government support. Instead, JAXA, Japan’s national space agency, was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, proffering resources and conducting training.
Nonetheless, Africa has officially joined the space race. It’s an exciting milestone, made all the more interesting by an increased number of nations jostling to follow suit. Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum attested to this last month: “Several nations, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia have space agencies. Angola announced its intention to launch a satellite over the coming year.”
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The Space Race: Japan
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has recently been accredited with providing resources and training to Ghana’s extraterrestrial team. But the national agency, established as recently as 2003, is involved in a number of advanced missions, and harbours some lofty aspirations too, aiming to put a man (or woman) on the moon before China.
Some aspirations are closer to home, as evidenced by the work of the Japanese Space Agency’s DAICHI Advanced Land Observing Satellite, used to create “the world’s most precise geographical map”. Whilst this might ostensibly lack the glamour of more celestial missions, the map could be used to identify and prevent worldly disasters, from stopping the spread of polio to ameliorating resettlement plans in the wake of the 2015 Nepal earthquakes.
Private space exploration is also making significant headway in Japan; last month, startup company Momo launched Japan’s first commercial space rocket, built by Interstellar Technologies Inc. The venture was, only a partial success, failing to meet its target altitude of 100km when, one minute after the launch, the ground team lost communication with the vessel, leaving it at an estimated altitude of 20km. Takafumi Horie, the entrepreneur behind Momo maintained a positive outlook, stating on his Facebook page that, “We were able to get valuable data that could lead to success in the future.”
The Space Race: India
Whilst India is yet to conduct its first human space flight, it too has been coming on leaps and bounds in terms of space exploration. In February 2017, India achieved record-breaking success when it launched 104 satellites into orbit on a single rocket. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) were quick to confirm that the launch had overtaken the previous 2014 Russian record of 37 satellites on a single launch.
Another milestone came back in September 2016, when the nation launched a rocket carrying satellites intended for dual orbit, a feat that’s notoriously difficult to pull off. In doing so, India joined the likes of the European Space Agency, with its Vega rocket.
It’s not all smiles, though. When, back in 2014, India beat China to become the fourth country to launch a satellite to orbit Mars, at the cost of $74 million (£56 million), former ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair condemned the mission as “utter nonsense”, “moonshine” and “not value for money”, according to the Financial Times. Social activists were similarly derisive, lamenting officials’ apparent indifference to the poverty-stricken plight of millions at the expense of the Mars mission.
Most recently, in June 2017, India launched a communication satellite using its most powerful rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III (also known as “Fat Boy”). At three tonnes, the GSAT-19 satellite is the heaviest India has attempted to put into orbit, and the event could usher the nation into big leagues of space exploration. As it stands, only the US, Russia, China, Japan, and the European Space Agency have thus far succeeded in launching a satellite weight over three tonnes. India’s 0.6% share of the global launch services industry could just be about to – ahem – skyrocket.
The Space Race: China
China’s been a long-established player in the space race, with The Observer referring to it as “the new space superpower”. The Wenchang launch complex in China’s Hainan province opened in 2014 and has become the new hub for China’s space activity and ambitions, both of which are plentiful. It was the site of the seminal June 2016 launch of the Long March 7 rocket, designed with a view to placing a multi-module space station in orbit.
China’s extraterrestrial achievements haven’t been in short supply, from landing the 1.2 tonne spacecraft Chang’e-3 landing on the Moon, to the 13 August 2016 launch of a “hack proof” quantum communication satellite from its Jiuquan launch centre in the Gobi Desert.
Chinese space expenditure is estimated at around $6 billion (£4.6 billion) a year, which, although roughly $1 billion more than that of Russia, pales in comparison to America’s budget. And what with President Trump’s apparent alacrity in rejuvenating the space industry, this figure could be set to rise…
The Space Race: America
Indeed, back in this first quarter of 2017, the president issued a $208 million (£160 million) increase in NASA’s funding, setting the space agency’s total funding at $19.5 billion. It’s a hefty sum, although it only equates to 0.47% of the country’s budget (this figure was 4.41% in 1966, oh how priorities have changed).
America’s achievements in space are extensive. Highlights include NASA successfully landing eight out of nine missions to the surface of Mars, with only the Mars Polar Lander failing to do so – and that was way back in 1999. The most powerful rocket in the world – with the capacity to lug 28.8 tons to low Earth orbit, is the Colorado-based Delta IV Heavy, operated by the United Launch Alliance. NASA has explored the outer Solar System with Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and the Galileo. Currently, there’s even a mission on its way to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Private space companies are burgeoning too, with tycoons such as Elon Musk promulgating SpaceX into one of the most valuable private companies on the planet (Google invested $900 million in 2015), and Jeff Bezos injecting $1 billion of his own money each year into Blue Origin, his own space company.
The Space Race: Russia
America’s old rivals in the OG space race are lagging. In between the billionaires’ space playground in the States and the rise of new stars such as India and China, the Russian space program doesn’t get much press.
The program – led by national space agency Roscosmos – is still active, and currently sends on average four crews to the International Space Station every year. But the government has slashed spending, with projections for the next ten year cycle down to $21 billion from $64 billion. As John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Slate, “Their budget is not adequate to maintain a world-class space effort across the board.”
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